Observational learning is learning by watching the actions of others. A specific behavior is observed by a student, trainee, or child, and then that behavior is imitated.
Learning by observation is one of the most fundamental ways that humans learn. Unlike reading how to do something, watching another person engage in the sequence of actions necessary to carry out a particular behavior is highly efficient and informative.
Many facets of the human experience are actually learned behaviors as a result of observation. For example, we internalize the attitudes of parents, pick up on the meaning of gestures, and learn the appropriateness of various emotional expressions by observing others.
Definition of Observational Learning
There are 4 key factors involved in observational learning according to Albert Bandura (1977), the father of social learning theory.
- Attention: The first key element is attention. Observers cannot learn if they are not actually paying attention.
- Retention: Retention means that the observation must be placed in memory.
- Reproduction: Reproduction refers to the observer’s ability to reproduce the behavior observed.
- Motivation: And finally, without motivation to engage in the behavior, it will not be reproduced.
In addition, the person being observed is also a key factor. Models that are in high-status positions, considered experts, are rewarded for their actions, or provide nurturance to the observer, are more likely to have their actions imitated.
Situated Learning Theory also highly values observational learning. This theory argues that people learn best when ‘situated’ within a group of people who are actively completing the tasks that need to be learned. For example, being an apprenticeship getting on-the-job training is seen to be far more valuable than learning about theory in a classroom.
Examples of Observational Learning
1. The Bonobo Dolls Experiment
The Bonobo Dolls Experiment was a famous case study in psychology by Albert Bandura which kicked-off the theory of observational learning. In this experiment, he proved that children observe adults and then re-create adults’ actions.
In this experiment, had two groups of children in two separate rooms. Each room had a doll in it, called the Bonobo Doll.
Then, Bandura sent an adult into each room. In Room 1, the adult peacefully played with the doll. She brushed its hair, cared for it, and loved it. In Room 2, the adult kicked and beat around the doll.
After the adults left the rooms, the children began to play with the dolls. In Room 1, the children mimicked the adult. They cared for the doll and brushed its hair. In Room 2, the children also mimicked the adult. The treated the doll roughly, kicked it around, and were not careful with it.
Here, we can see observational learning in effect.
Apprenticeships are a perfect example of observational learning. Through an apprenticeship, you can actually watch what the professional is doing rather than simply learning about it in a classroom.
Apprenticeships are therefore very common in practical and hands-on professions like plumbing, carpentry, and cooking.
A similar concept, the internship, occurs in white-collar professions. Internships involve a blend of theoretical learning and apprenticeship scenarios to allow people to learn about the nexus between theory and practice. For example, doctors will often complete their medical degree then do an internship for a few years under more experienced doctors.
3. Learning How to Walk
One of the earliest manifestations of observational learning comes as toddlers learn how to walk. They undoubtedly watch their caregivers stroll across the room countless times a day.
By watching how the legs move forward and backward, accompanied by the slight movements of the upper limbs, they begin to see the basic sequence required to walk.
Of course, standing up is first, followed by maintaining balance and not falling. Those sound easier than they really are. So, children will start by holding on to a table or the edge of the sofa and scoot along.
After some time, a toddler might manage to put together 3 or 4 steps in a row; to the great joy of mom and dad.
4. Gender Norms
In the last 20 years, there has been increasing recognition that our traditional notions of masculinity and femininity are learned rather than innate.
In other words, boys learn to “act like men” through observing male role models in their lives. Similarly, girls learn to “be girly” by observing other females.
One way that we know that gender stereotypes are learned rather than natural is that different societies have different expressions of gender. In some societies, for example, women are the decision-makers in the household, while in others, men are seen as the head of the household. This has led sociologists and cultural theorists to claim the gender norms are ‘social constructs’ which create hierarchies of privilege in society (aka social stratification).
5. Parallel Play
During parallel play, children tend not to play with other children. Instead, they will watch from a distance. You might observe, for example, a child playing with a toy while their sibling or peer keeps an eye on them. Later, that sibling will come up to the toy and play with it in a similar way to the first child. Here, we can see that the second child observed then attempted to mimic the first child.
Observational learning can also occur during cooperative play, a later play stage in Parten’s theory of play-based learning. During cooperative play, children will play together, including each other into their play narratives.
6. Chimpanzee Tool Use
Chimps have been observed in a naturalistic environment using a variety of tools. In nearly all of these observed instances of chimp tool-use, a young chimp can be seen nearby observing. This is how the skill is passed down to younger generations.
For example, some chimps use a twig to collect termites out of a termite hill. The twig is used like a fishing pole to probe the termite hill and then retrieve it covered in termites. Other chimps have been observed using rocks to crack open nuts.
Furthermore, surprisingly, the mother chimp provides very little assistance. “Non-human primates are often thought to learn tool skills by watching others and practicing on their own, with little direct help from mothers or other expert tool users,” says Stephanie Musgrave, first author of the study found here, which includes some amazing videos.
7. Wolf Pack Hunting
Like Chimpanzees, wolves also learn from observation. Wolves are extremely competent hunters. They hunt in packs and take cues from the wolf pack leader.
Young wolves are given roles that are less important in the pack. Their job is to learn, watch, and develop their skills. As they get older and stronger, they move up the hierarchy and take more active roles in the hunt.
In these instances, we can see how hunting in a wolf pack is an example of observational learning. In fact, it’s the perfect example of situated learning: learning by being part of the group. You start out in the periphery, and as you get more competent, you’re given bigger and more important roles.
8. Table Manners and Cutlery
Table manners and learning how to use cutlery are other examples of observational learning.
Young children start by imitating how the spoon is held, how it scoops up food, and then moved to the mouth for consumption. Of course, there are a lot of mistakes along the way and more times than not, more food ends up on the floor than in the mouth.
Over the next few years, the child’s caregivers will demonstrate various table etiquette, such as chewing with one’s mouth closed, keeping the head upright, and not using the plate as a place to mix food and juice.
Obviously, table manners are culturally defined so what a child observes as appropriate behavior in one country might be the exact opposite of “manners” in another.
9. Culturally Defined Gestures
One lesson learned in the age of the internet and cross-cultural communication is that a simple gesture can have a multitude of meanings, completely depending on the culture it is displayed in.
For example, in many Western cultures, a thumbs-up gesture means “okay”. When you show someone that sign it means that you approve and is considered to be encouraging. However, in some Middle Eastern countries, it can be a very insulting taboo. In fact, it can be the equivalent of the middle finger in the West.
This is just one example of an observed behavior that is culturally defined. When travelling abroad, it’s best to do some research beforehand.
10. Observing Bad Habits on T.V.
People learn a lot valuable skills and habits by watching others. Unfortunately, the same can be said of bad habits. For example, watching movie stars smoke can lead to a lot of people taking up smoking. It looks so cool on the big screen.
Drinking in excess is also a bad habit that can be observed on television. One interesting note here is that you will never see someone actually drinking on a TV commercial in the United States. Although there is no federal law prohibiting it, the industry has imposed this regulation on themselves.
So, observational learning can teach us both constructive and destructive habits.
11. YouTube Tutorial Videos
No matter what it is you want to learn how to do, there is probably a YouTube video tutorial for it.
If you want to learn how to use Photoshop or a specific video-editing program, just type in the appropriate search terms and there you go. The results will show at least a couple dozen options to choose from.
In the video, you can watch someone take you through all the necessary steps. If they go too fast, then just click pause. If what they said seemed a little unclear, then just scroll the video back a little and listen again. It’s super easy and super convenient, and a super example of observational learning.
12. Language Acquisition
Learning to speak a language is a long process. Even if the language is in your native tongue, it still takes years. If you are a second language teacher, then helping your students can take even longer.
One trick of the trade for language teachers is to instruct students to watch the teacher’s lips and mouth as they speak. Correct pronunciation has a lot to do with getting the lips to form a particular shape. Just listening to the instructor can help some, but unless the students form the right shape with their lips, their pronunciation will always be off.
We don’t usually think of learning how to speak a language as an example of observational learning, but it most definitely is.
13. Language on the Playground
The playground is a learning environment all its own. Children learn how to deal with conflicts, develop coordination, and unfortunately, sometimes foul language.
Children have a tendency to imitate others, and sometimes that doesn’t always mean imitating behaviors that are constructive.
Probably most children have heard something on the playground and then went home and repeated it do mom and dad. That can be a big mistake. Hopefully, the parents will understand and not freak out.
That leads to the next example of observational learning: when the parents show their child what is the proper way to handle this kind of situation. Remember, children observe their parents as well. So, if the parents model a certain way to handle this kind of situation, the children will likely imitate later when they have children too.
14. Wearing Seatbelts
The power of observational learning is a double-edged sword. It can lead to people picking up bad habits, or adopting good ones. Wearing a seatbelt is a classic example of how watching a public service announcement condoning a healthy habit has helped save lives.
When seatbelts were first introduced in the early days of the automobile back in the 1880s, they were not greeted warmly by the public, with tragic results. Eventually, in 1959 Volvo offered the first three-point seatbelt in its cars and shared the patent with other manufacturers. Still, adoption by the public was reluctant.
The tide began to change however with the prevalence of dramatic public service announcements and government laws. As a result, in most industrialized countries, seatbelt use is a widely accept social norm.
This is an example of how observational learning has helped save lives around the world.
For more information about the history of the seatbelt, see here.
15. Cooking Shows
Learning the art of great cooking is a big part trial-and-error. It’s also something that can be learned by watching others. Fortunately, there are tons of cooking shows out there to choose from.
The chefs do a great job of demonstrating how they put together a dish. They will show viewers how to mix certain ingredients, how to slice and dice various items, and what the meal will look like when finished. Sometimes they will even go to the local farmer’s market and show viewers what to look for when selecting the ingredients.
These are all things that can be learned by reading a recipe book, but seeing it first-hand is much more informative.
Learning by observation can explain how human beings learn to do so many things. It is probably one of the most fundamental ways that people learn.
Unfortunately, that has both positive and negative manifestations. For example, toddlers learn to walk by observing their parents. Students learn proper pronunciation habits by looking closely at their teacher’s lip formations.
Yet, observing others can also get us in trouble. It can teach us bad habits such as smoking and excessive drinking. It can also be the source of innocent children going home and shocking their parents.
Like most things in life, the good must come with the bad.
Anderson, C. A., & Dill, K. E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(4), 772–790. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.112
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Prentice Hall.
Berkowitz, L. (1990). On the formation and regulation of anger and aggression: A cognitive-neoassociationistic analysis. American Psychologist, 45, 494–503.
Musgrave, S., Lonsdorf, E., Morgan, D., Prestipino, M., Bernstein-Kurtycz, L., Mundry, R., & Sanz, C. (2019). Teaching varies with task complexity in wild chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117, 201907476. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1907476116
Stover, C. (2005). Domestic violence research: What have we learned and where do we go from here? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 448-454. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260504267755